The power of human stories

I shared this short clip on Facebook the other day because it was important. It’s important because it’s a human story that needs to be told.

Francine Christope-One amazing ladyWOW!!!!!!!! Seriously, stop what you are doing right now and watch this video. It’s not often that I post really serious stuff, but this woman is just amazing. Watch and share this, I promise you – totally worth it 🙂 ~ QC

Posted by I Do Not Need Anger Management, You Just Need to Shut Up on Saturday, 24 October 2015

I’m not going to blow the story by telling you what it’s all about: just spend a couple of minutes watching it. It comes from a film called Human. It is the story of a Nazi holocaust survivor. It’s a story that is well known and well-trodden. Then it changes and becomes human.

It’s also important because it chimes with what I’ve been trying to do with the history sessions at Past participants. I am talking about the power of the story of the individual. A story that has the potential to illuminate world-changing events, making them real, on a human scale, intelligible. These stories are often lost in the sheer scale of these cataclysms.

The First World War is just such an event. It’s too huge to truly comprehend, even for someone like me whose job is to understand and elucidate it. There are simply too many people, in too many places, having too many awful things happen to them to get your head round. This is why we have ended up with what I’ve called the “Tommyfication” of the conflict. The reduction of the entire war to the story of Tommies in muddy trenches on the Western Front, told through the lens of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen (or even Blackadder). There is nothing wrong with this picture in itself. It’s when we extrapolate this simple picture to the entire war that we run into problems. Think about it for a moment: at the battle of Passchendaele (or third Battle of Ypres) alone there were 50 British and 6 French Divisions. That’s just over a million men on the allied side, of whom between 200,00 and 400,000 ended up as casualties. Think about that for a moment. To presume that their experiences were broadly similar doesn’t really make a lot of sense, even if you assume that they were all riflemen and ignore all the engineers, artillerists, messengers, signallers, medical staff and other assorted specialisations. The reason for it is simple enough: it’s easier to get your head round it if you’re dealing with multiples of similar stories, ie numbers.

Sgt Will Meatyard

Sgt Will Meatyard

When I set up Past Participants I wanted to approach the story from a different angle. I wanted children to encounter individuals, real people and their real stories. Sometimes those stories align with the recognised narrative and sometimes they run counter to it, but that’s because they were real people. I wanted children to encounter these individuals unencumbered by the numbers and statistics. I wanted them to feel that they had a handle on who these people were and what they were doing on the battlefield. I wanted these people to have a name and a face to go with their story. These stories are often more interesting in their wrinkles than the “barbed wire and machine guns” narrative. This is why I’ve had year 6 children ask, 2 years after they last saw me, “are we going to find out about Andrew Turnbull again?”. That is the impact of the individual when the class feels a sense of ownership.

Pte Andrew Turnbull RM

Pte Andrew Turnbull RM

I’ve found that, once they know how much detail there is in two stories, then suddenly children see that 200,00 stories is no longer a number, it’s a sense of scale. They realise that we could zoom in on any of these individuals and find something the same and yet different. This is the jaw-drop moment, the light bulb moment when suddenly the size of what we’re talking about makes sense. Seeing that moment makes it all worthwhile. It’s why I keep doing this.

This premise is the basis for my First World War history sessions. I deconstruct the “Saving Private Ryan” narrative in the same way when I do my D Day sessions, using the actual memories of those who were there to similar effect. Have a look at them.


Posted by Past Participants Andy

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